Bill C-31: Refugee wrongs or refugee rights?

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Immigration Minister Jason Kenney recently offered to the press an uncharacteristic opinion about Canada's temporary foreign worker program. He commented that he would like to give temporary foreign workers "a more realistic choice of staying here as permanent residents."

As a group of lawyers, legal workers and law students, this caught us off guard. After all, the Conservative government has actively increased the temporary foreign worker program since it took power, and, along with it, the potential for exploitative and dangerous working conditions. The vast majority of these migrant labourers, hailing from such places as Latin America and the Caribbean, are denied access to permanent residency altogether.

It turns out, however, that Minister Kenney was not talking about the average temporary foreign worker. Rather, he was referring to the recent influx of workers from Ireland.

Apparently for these workers, a different standard applies.

"If they're doing well in the labour market, if an employer likes them and wants to keep them and they meet our other criteria like speaking English, why would we want to send them back?" asks Minister Kenney.

When discussing this point with a refugee claimant from Ghana with whom we have worked, he commented: "We also speak English. We are also highly educated. We also understand how things work here. But you don't change the immigration system to let us in. That's 110% discrimination."

Of course, none of this is surprising. Race and country of origin have always been consistent factors in shaping Canadian immigration policy. The Conservative approach is merely the most explicitly xenophobic and exclusionary that we have seen in the recent past.

In fact, as we mark Refugee Rights Day today, the Conservatives are advancing new legislation that will choke off access to refugee status and, in doing so, will disproportionately shut the door to poor people of colour.

Bill C-31 undemocratically concentrates power in the hands of the Minister, giving rise to a host of injustices. For example, under the bill, many refugees, including those as young as 16, will be detained for a minimum of one year without a hearing. This criminalizes asylum seekers in a way unseen before in Canada. Furthermore, even if their claims are ultimately successful, refugees will be barred from reuniting with their families for at least an additional five years.

Another example of new ministerial power is the ability for the Minister to unilaterally name so-called "safe" countries. This will create a two-tiered refugee determination process based on nationality. Refugee claimants from "safe" countries will have no right of appeal and will have limited time to access lawyers and prepare for their cases. This is in spite of the reality that a refused claim means that people will be deported back to the situation from which they fled in the first place.

These changes violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as Canada's obligations under international law that require every individual refugee claimant to have their case evaluated on its own merits.

The bill is set against a backdrop of other troubling policies. The Conservatives have reduced the number of live-in caregivers accepted each year, frozen sponsorship of parents and grandparents, increased the temporary foreign worker program which reduces access to permanent residency, and introduced "conditional" permanent residence for spouses based on unsubstantiated allegations of rampant marriage fraud. Taken together, this legislative overhaul has a disproportionately negative effect on poor people of colour from countries in the South.

For the record, it's not that we've got anything against the Irish. We're simply opposed to immigration policy that is based on race.

The Immigration Legal Committee is a Toronto-based group of law students, legal workers and lawyers. We can be reached at .

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